Duel Personalities


It’s little known among the denizens of Greenpoint, but McCarren Park resides in the Re-Incipient Canton of Broken Bridge in the Crown Province of a region that, according to the fictional geography of the Society for Creative Anachronism, encompasses New York City as well as Nassau, Westchester, and Putnam counties. While members of the SCA, an international organization that is devoted to re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th-century Europe, might scarcely raise an eyebrow at a Ren Faire or gothic fete, taken completely out of context and placed in an everyday setting—say, under a cluster of spotlights between a Hasidic softball team and a band of hellions from the nearby Automotive High School—they are a sight to behold.

On a typical Tuesday night, the imposing Lord Ervald the Optimist and Knight Marshal Valgard Jarl Stonecleaver take to the field, outfitted in fighting coats with heavy breastplates, greaves, helmets, vambraces, cuisses, gorgets, and shields made of metal. Soon, they are joined by half a dozen more knights brandishing an array of single-hand swords, broadswords, long swords, shields, and polearms. Battle cries and the sounds of clashing metal fill the air. Amazingly, most regulars in the park ignore them completely.

“You know, you seen one Brooklyn knight, you seen ’em all,” huffed Racine Mazur as she cooled down from an evening jog one night. “They’re always here.”

While somewhat nonplussed, the cops are usually equally tolerant, rolling up to ask questions but rarely breaking up the fighting practice. Which is a relief to those of us who like to watch, whether we admit it or not.

“En garde, motherfucker!” shouted a passing tough on the first night I caught a glimpse of the knights of Broken Bridge. “I’ll challenge you to a mother-fucking duel!”

The noble Knight Marshal ignored the challenge, focusing on his opponent who, having “lost” one leg, was hopping on the other. Then someone from the adjacent softball game shouted. Instinctively, the knights, the thugs, and everyone else in the park froze in place and searched the night sky for the runaway softball.

Of course, my neighborhood park is not the sole locale for unlikely combats. I was equally mystified the first time I stumbled across the Fishkill Fencers in the midst of Riverside Park (and then again at Fort Tryon Park and later at Liberty State Park).

Resplendent in dazzling white uniforms with smooth tunic-like jackets, knickers, knee-high socks, and black mesh face masks, three dozen fencers stood against the Hudson River, wielding épées in the pale sunlight. To a bleary-eyed neophyte like myself, it resembled something out of a moody science fiction movie: The competitors—some of them young children—were tethered to electronic leashes that communicated with scoring boxes on the perimeter of the playing field. Buzzers rang and tiny lights flashed as they feinted and parried, their slender dueling swords reaching for delicate regions of the body. (Anything is fair game in fencing.)

“This was how real duels were fought,” explained John Kevin O’Mara, co-founder of the fledgling Fishkill Fencers, whose unique outdoor tournaments have started drawing fencers from throughout the tristate area and beyond. “People met outside, in the morning light.”

A large, gregarious man with a bushy white mustache and a working man’s handshake, O’Mara is a far cry from the thin-lipped blue blood one might associate with the effete pastime of fencing, but he loves the sport. And with his cohort Alexander “Sandy” Turoff—a fierce competitor in the Fishkill tourneys—he has brought some light and levity to the game.

“Did you see the trophies?” asked Barre Miller, an unintentional spectator who was waylaid en route to the dog run. “There’s a bunny with teeth.”

“That’s for the top female finisher,” chortled O’Mara, looking over the figurines from Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “It’s soft and cuddly, with teeth.”

There were no man-eating rabbits in Union Square Park the following week, where a memorial service for Jimmy the Beard, a man evidently crushed to death by a stunt piano that pinned him between an intoxicated stripper and the ceiling of an old nightclub in San Francisco, was taking place.

A crowd of mourners gathered around a table covered with tea lights and votive candles to illuminate a photograph of the late great Beard. They passed out pamphlets and invited strangers to celebrate the life of the unsung hero, but before tears had a chance to flow, three clowns arrived in the park with a toy piano, which they began to pound. Enraged by the insensitivity of piano music, one of the bereaved reproached the clowns. Words were exchanged. Fists were thrown. A whistle was blown. And within a few minutes the three clowns had been replaced by a dozen. With pies.

Unbeknownst to the skate punks, shoppers, buskers, loafers, and hippies who regularly gather in Union Square Park on Friday night, the memorial had been arranged to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of the Cacophony Society, a loose confabulation of pranksters and urban adventurers whose motto is “You may already be a member.”

Shaving cream, whipped cream, and pudding filled the air as pie tins were unceremoniously smashed into the faces of mourners. Gooey bedlam ensued. Not gleaning or, in fact, fully grasping the situation, one of the skate punks shouted, “What the fuck!” before smacking a clown in the back of the head with his board as the mourners themselves began producing pies from under their altar.

Within three minutes, the cops had arrived, the ground was covered in slime, and the skate punks had surrounded a taxi filled with escaping mourners. No one even noticed when a group of “gypsies” showed up impotently armed with oatmeal, but a tourist was overheard to say: “Does that kind of thing always happen in the park?”

Only if you’re lucky.